30 June 2012

Half-a-year gone

I guess, in some ways, the not having a job thingy worked out for my getting caught up on reading. As June ends, with 6 months of 2012 gone, I've completed 23 books totaling 10, 775 pages. 

As compared to last year, where I read 32 books all year -with a good chunk read between the time Borders closed in mid September, however- by the time June ended in 2011 ( and I completed The Passage on July 02) I had finished just eleven books. 

Of course, all of these books were fiction, which takes me quicker to read than non-fiction. And at the rate I'm going, I may end up breaking out some of those titles. Of course, I want a job, but while the actual looking has become even more difficult -there is not much out there that will pay a "liveable" wage (unless I want three jobs)- reading has helped me through the dull days.

So, as the second half of 2012 begins tomorrow, I wonder how many books I will complete between July 1 and December 31. As noted, last year was a personal best in a long time, getting through 32 novels. If I just double it, that would mean forty-six. But we'll see.

29 June 2012

Books: Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (2008)

In John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars we get fast paced, very humorous look at first contact between humans and aliens, the Yherajk (a gelatinous species that resemble Jell-O and speak with smells). While I’ve never read a Scalzi book before, I have sometime trafficked his Whatever blog (and have a collection of those postings in a book called Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, which I still have not read) and found his style often humors and very personable. Little of what he says, on the site or this book, seems wasted.

Unlike most first contact stories, Agent takes a different route, dealing with issues like mind control and whether there is a soul. But it also takes a unique way of looking at how an alien, in hopes of showing they’re not hostile, would want to be introduced to humans. Hiring a PR from Hollywood was a clever idea. 

For us Southern California residents, the main character of Tom Stein visits many local venues outside of Los Angeles itself, and it often reminded me of Stephen King who sometimes did this. Still, King has often been criticized for using too much in the way of current cultural references such as TV shows and movies. Though there maybe a reason for this as Scalzi says in his forward this was his first book, and at the time, he never thought this would see the light of day.  It was originally published online in 1999, then picked up and republished in 2005 by Subterranean as a limited edition, then republished by Tor in 2008 (though the first mass market edition did not hit until 2010)

The book loses its steam towards the end, and you could easily figure out how it was going to conclude, plus the whole plot is propped up  almost entirely on coincidence –as a PR guy, he’s a bit dumb when it comes to real ideas, he sort of reacts to them. In the final analysis, the plausibility factor got skewered and its own internal logic slips the beam. And it took a while to get figure out the characters, as they seemed to talk alike (and because of that, at time I felt confused between the two female characters, Miranda and Michelle. They were not distinctly different, and having names start with the same letter added to the problem).

Again, it’s fast paced, at times really funny, and very readable. The concept of the aliens was interesting, but by the end, you realize that you’ve been caught up in a deus ex machine. Again.

26 June 2012

Books: The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978)

What I like about John Irving is what makes me want to read more than watch TV or see movies. He’s a very literate author, with metaphors and parables designed to bring depth and nuances to his story. It may seem pretentious to others –especially the fools who digest James Patterson “written” novels over the last few years- but the simple message is just like Garp’s observation when going to pick-up his son Duncan at a friend’s house late at night. Garp is jogging to the house and he notices the flicker of TV set’s being refracted out of people’s homes and Irving protagonist, Garp, ponders that “this glow looks like a cancer, insidious and numbing, putting the world to sleep. Maybe television causes cancer, Garp thinks; but his real irritation is a writer’s irritation: he knows wherever the TV glows, there sits someone who isn’t reading.”

I don’t consider myself a writer, though in my heart of hearts, I think this is what I like to do. But as I’ve aged, the media aspects of TV and movies have lessened in my life. Where once I cared deeply for TV shows and its stars, saw movies on opening day and pushed and pulled people to come with me, now I find them dull, ponderous and pointless. Well, not so pointless. I still have a love of media, but I’m in tuned to the informational side of it now.

Journalism (and cooking) seemed to be the two things I’ve missed. Instead of working in a bookstore –since 1987, it’s been the thing I’ve done, I should’ve been writing the books that appear there. Had I known back in high school that journalism was where I should have concentrated my career choices instead of the safety of business administration I might be a happier person today.

All of my regrets are bundled up like a years’ worth of newspapers, sitting in my way. It seems I’m aware of them being in my way, but unable to throw them out. 

Anyways, The World According to Garp was Irving’s breakout novel. It seems surprising to me that 34 years after it was published, I finally picked it up. And I can’t say why I’m slowly making my way through his canon. Perhaps that is a lie. In my years of reading –mostly the late teens and well into my twenties-, I focused on fantasy novels (just as I started reading mysteries in High School). As I got into my 30s, fantasy novels were still there, but I began to read other genres, and more or less, contemporary fiction (also called pop fiction). 

While I cannot bare to read Austen, Dickens and many other of the “classics,” I’ve found that Irving is more appealing to me now. I’m slowly going through his literary canon and am simply enjoying his ability to create these hugely interesting characters. 

I don’t know; the edition I have is a mass market copy that was released in 1998. In the afterword for the 20th Anniversary edition, Irving recalls giving the finished book to his then 12 year-old son to read in 1977 and asking him to sort of evaluate it. This book, according to Irving, was the first one Colin would be able to read. As Colin noted, The World According Garp is about death, and all parents fears of their children’s lives. In some way, Garp (through Irving) no longer seems to care about his fate, but will do everything in his power to make sure his children, Duncan, Walt and Jenny, are safe. Garp would be called an over protective parent these days as well as back then when the book was written. Which is not a bad thing, but in Irving’s world, no matter how Garp tries to protect his kids and the people around him, you can’t save them. 

As Irving’s son Colin noted a few years later when asked if Garp was, in reality, John Irving (most readers believe that all books about families are autobiographical –this author more so than others, I think)  the then 14 year-old answered “No, my dad isn’t Garp, but my father’s fears are Garp’s fears- they’re any father’s fears.”

So like all of Irving’s books, the theme of death, gender roles and sexuality are wound together like they do in real life. In 1978, this book may have been shocking –especially what Garp’s mother Jenny does to get pregnant- but today, it’s simply a reality TV series on MTV. 

Reading, for me, is what defines me. The simple act of picking up a book, turning off the TV, the computer and sitting and devoting my time to the written word has more meaning to me that anything TV or the movies. Perhaps that is why I’ve become so critical of that media of late; the written word is being denied in a world where set pieces, explosions and CGI  effects are designed to cover the flaw that most TV shows and movies don’t care about the story, the author behind the words. 

Given a choice, I’ll always read. I’ll read until I shuttle off this mortal coil. For me, the most tragic aspect of my life would be going blind or living in the world seen in the classic Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last. There, Burgess Meredith, a lover of books, stumbles through a busy life. When a nuclear war happens, and he discovers he has survived, he realizes now he has enough time to read. Of course, per the series, there is the twist ending.

Life is a twist; both in the world of John Irving and The World According to Garp.

18 June 2012

Books: Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon (1992)

So, I finished the second book in this series, and mostly, I have the same issues.

Its way over long -and the each novel in the current 7 book series gets longer- and there is a lot of downtime where nothing really happens. While there adventures in France were integral to the plot, it becomes clear towards the end that most of that time could have been edited down to a few pages, brief chapter’s or two.

But what we get is a very detailed day-in-life of Claire and Jamie that often borders on tedious. It’s like this: say it’s a three day journey between point A and point B. As far as Gabaldon is concerned, we need each of those days spelled out in the most infinite detail, from what they ate, to family stories that no one could remember in the detail she describes –and most with no bearing on the plot what so ever. 

Also, I guess I know why women read and write romance, because they can create the perfect man. Jamie and Claire love each other (to the point where you swear they had Alzheimer’s, ‘cause almost 20 pages don’t go by without them having sex or babbling their love for one another. It’s tedious) and Jamie –as noted before- is a super hero Terminator, able to be beat down again and again, and never ever complain. So the author forces us believe that somehow, this guy could survive while others die easily. 

This second book opens in 1968. We learn Claire returned through the stone circle three years after she vanished in 1945. We know that she was pregnant with Jamie’s baby, but Frank (her 20th Century husband) became Brianna’s father. Now Frank is dead and Claire has decided to tell her daughter the truth.  She’s returned to the area for the first time since her return and explains to her and Frank’s friend Roger, the story of what happened before she returned.

Part of the problem is the first person narrative Gabaldon foists on us. While I understand the underlying reason she chose to use this prose devise –the reader learns as Claire does- it becomes tedious as Claire vacillates between a smart, 20th Century woman, into a bubbling pot of gooey love when Jamie is around –and we get her 16 year-old school girl version of it. There were times I was not surprised to see her writing Mrs. Jamie Fraser again and again with little hearts above the i’s. 

And maybe this is why the author chose 1945 for the setting of Claire’s departure from the 20th Century. While she was educated in medicine, and knows how to heal people in 1745, her lack of knowledgeable history is appalling. And at times, Claire seems to have some idea about the past, other times she seems lackadaisical. And though she spends another 22 years in the 20th Century, does she spend it reading history books? Nope, because it would be too painful for her. Ugh. Seriously? 

In this book Gabaldon does address the timeline issue. In book one, her and Jamie thought that a descendant of Frank was killed in 1744, and not 1745 as history had shown. But since her wedding ring from Frank did not vanish (because of the Grandfather Effect) they were not sure how the flow of time proceeded. Then, she introduces a brother (of course) and you can eventually see where this is going. Plus, while Claire encountered a woman in the past from 1968, she waits until then to even investigate her. I applaud her for not mucking up the timeline -Duncan has to go back in time- but I don't buy for the minute why she waited 22 years to figure out the whole time-loop thingy.

The book ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. For 22 years she’s believed Jamie to be dead, killed at battle that marked a turning point in history in the war between the English and the Scots. Now –because Claire changed history by telling Jamie of that battle, he appears to be alive.

So I’m guessing, she’ll return to the portal in the stone circle for book 3.

But I doubt she’ll bring a history book with her. And I doubt I'll take the time to read it.

17 June 2012

Repost: Happy Father's Day

Below is a post I did in 2010, about my moms third husband, and what he means, at least to me:

While he’s been married to my Mom (this November) for 25 years, I’ve known him collectively for nearly 31 years. I was 17 when I first met him, when my mom, coming out of a nasty, bitter divorce from her second husband. All of us, my siblings and I, was sort of wary of him. My older sister, me and my younger sister had called my mom’s second husband “dad” because we so wanted one. 

Our real father was dead, cancer taking him in July 1968 at the age of 33.

But when my moms marriage fell apart in 1979, we all tried to rally around her, and hate the man who screwed her over. And over the years, I grew less resentful of the man who first replaced our father; we’ve seen him at certain family functions over the years. Still, its hard to fathom just what he did and still not remain bitter over it. But, for me (and I think even my Mom), I've moved on.

But this third man, this nice Italian with three kids of his own, seemed to take a shine to my mother, despite four rebellious kids of her own. Well, only my older brother was rebellious, and was the only one who refused to call my mom’s second husband “dad.” He perused her for nearly six years before she agreed to marry him.

But see, in those six years before, I kind grew to like the man, and my siblings and I got along with his three kids, so by the time they did marry in 1985 I knew this one was for keeps. It didn’t hurt that I think he kind of worshiped the ground my mom walked on, even though I felt at times it was silly for him to do that. And, I always thought my mom married Guy because she was getting older, and did not want to spend the rest of her life alone. I know that sounds mean, bitter and stupid, but after all the issues with her second marriage, those thoughts stayed with me.

That was until he had a heart attack. While it was a mild one, he none the less went through bypass surgery. I remember, with the clarity of the day, my stepfather laying on the doctors table at the hospital, my mom hovering like the mother hen she can be, while the doctor explained the situation: a bypass would be mean he would recover completely while a shunt would only prolong things. She stood there, her hand in his, looking at her husband while tears streaming down her cheeks. It was then, that I knew she really, really loved him.

Over the last 25 years, I’ve grown to love this man as a husband to my mother and the father I lost 42 years ago this July. And this man, who does not share a single gene with me or my siblings, has tried (rather successfully) to love all of us nonetheless. And that is great.

So on Father’s Day, I can remind him that while we are genetically not connected, he is my dad. And I think, and I hope, that my real dad would approve. And I have 31 years of fond memories, three step-siblings who I care for (even the one has forsaken his family due to his religious beliefs enforced by a bitter, bitter woman) and hope that my mom and dad will be together for the rest of their lives.

All my love.

15 June 2012

Poltergeist 30 years later

This film opened on June 4, the same as Star Trek II. It's amazing to think that this one, the Star Trek film and E.T. opened within two weeks of each other in 1982, and all three were huge success. Now we're lucky if one film a month can do it.

Khan 30 Years later

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan celebrated its 30 anniversary this June. It debuted on June 4th, and in many ways, saved the Star Trek franchise.

30 Years Ago this week...

 While this clip is the "revised" version, it still holds a lot of emotional punch. When the film is released on Blu-Ray in October, it will be the original theatrical version.

10 June 2012

Visually spectacular, Prometheus suffers from disappointing script

There came a point, about midway through Prometheus, where I realized why director Ridley Scott kept saying the film shared some the DNA with his original 1979 film Alien, but was not an actual prequel to it. Part of the problem for me was the script offered more questions than answered. And he seemed to notice that.

It was, as some have complained over the years, much like how ABC’s Lost never offered much in a way of explanation as it ended, Prometheus (written by Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof, along with John Spaihts) does the same here, giving us more questions and little answers. Of course, it’s production history offers some look into how this film was developed –first begun life as an actual prequel to Alien around 2003, then shelved until Spaihts script got Scott’s interest again in 2009. Lindelof was brought in to re-write it, making it less of a direct prequel and more of film set in the same universe. This combination of Spaihts story ideas with Ridley Scott’s and Lindelof’s ideas creates a plate full of scrambled eggs here.

Theoretically, the film should have worked, though, and it does score in all the areas outside the plot: brilliant visual effects, grand production design and all around fine performances from the cast (though Charlize Theron’s Ice Queen Vickers becomes a pointless character towards the end, and was disappointed that they did little with her character beyond make her a corporate douche bag).  Noomi Rapace gives a workman’s style performance, becoming much like Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (and Rapace’s character in named Elizabeth Shaw, and is called Ellie by her boyfriend Charlie, played by Logan Marshall-Green who could be the younger, even hotter brother of Tom Hardy). 

The highlight was actor Michael Fassbender’s creepy android David that confirms what we always knew, that Weyland (and eventually Weyland-Yutani) would always put profit before life (and that Fassbender is horribly skinny, though I would kill to be that way).  And why no one has caught on at FAUX that this film is anti-corporate is beyond me (besides being released by their parent company?). 

Ultimately, a few of their loftier ideas end up not being fully realized, and the film offers little in the way of surprises –I not was shocked or surprised that Peter Weyland (in old age make-up that is surprisingly poor) pops up where he does, and who his child is (oh yes, every Lindelof story suffers some sort of Daddy issue). And why would even anyone support his narcissistic goals is beyond me.

Beyond, of course, the age-old chestnut that money will make people do horrible things –let other people die, mostly- in pursuant of their goals. We have that now, and sad that particular trait will follow us forever.

While in some respect, I’m disappointed that it only shares a little bit of the Alien franchises DNA, I was happy to get some glimpse –an answer here- of who the Space Jockey was from the first film.

09 June 2012

Books: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1992)

It’s been 20 years since Diana Gabaldon began her romance/historical/fantasy/science fiction series about one Claire Randall, 20th Century heroine who is transported back in time (via some stone circles) to the 18th Century. I had been aware of them for that long as well, but no matter what books store I worked, they were always shelved in the Romance section –one genre I don’t read. 

Of course, over the years, many readers (all women) have told me that the series is not really all romance, that it has equal doses of action, humor and history lesson. Still, it was considered Romance – at least to eyes of the Border, B. Dalton, Walden Books and Waterstones that I’ve worked at since 1987. Eventually, the books would be re-categorized as General Fiction/Literature I would guess more at the instance of the publishers, who always packaged them in plain, primary color covers –no half-naked men and women on the covers that was, and still is, typical Historical Romance. They obviously felt that the series sort of should not be pigeon-hold under one genre and is kind of telling men, you'll enjoy it for the violence.

But when Borders was closing down, and I was buying books on the cheap knowing it would some time before I could purchase new ones again, I bought the first 2 books in the series. So, I finally grabbed book 1 and sort of liked it.

The premise goes as this: The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon--when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach - an "outlander" - in a Scotland torn by war and raiding Highland clans in the Year of Our Lord 1743. Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into intrigues and dangers that may threaten her life...and shatter her heart. For here she meets James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, and becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire...and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Here’s the thing. It is long -850 pages in this mass market edition. And with 7 books out in the series, each topping at close to 1000 pages (one of the later editions clocks in at 1400 pages!!), I’m weary to start another endless series (an 8th book is due next year) that are doorstops in book format.

Outlander is a bit too long, too wordy, and vacillates between badly written and showing true talent. There is a lot of romance, or sex, and Gabaldon has created a perfect man in Jamie Fraser (who comes off more life the T-1000 in Terminator 2 very un-killable despite the efforts of friends, family and foes). And Claire does a lot of hand-wringing about whether she should leave Jamie and try to return to her own time –and seems to need rescue every 5 minutes as well. It gets old very fast.

Plus, its 25 pages to the end where she first starts pondering –after having killed two men in battle –whether she’s affected the flow of time. Did Claire enter a parallel universe? Is she caught in a time-loop? And since we find out she’s not the only one to travel back in time, who else has stumbled through? And since the one who came from 1967, if Claire returns to 1945, can she look the woman up and prevent her from going...time travel. Maybe that's why she ignores those time threads altogether? So it forces me to obsess about them.

Still, surprisingly, the book is fast-paced (even if it was overlong) and Gabaldon is a good storyteller. She has created some believable characters and they’re well developed (like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, each character and location seems to have lengthy, colorful background and she wants to tell us) and the author uses her three degrees – a Bachelor of Science in zoology, a Master of Science in marine biology, and a Ph.D. in ecology- well. 

Still, the next book is 947 pages. I have it, so I guess I should read it, but…well come on!!!

08 June 2012

Musician Brian Lam

This is Brian Lam, a close friend of mine, who is looking to expand his musical career. While he's produced a CD, MY EMBRACE, and had two of his songs featured in the indie film JUDAS KISS (CRASH and IF I FALL) which I worked on, he want's to take the next evolutionary step and produce a full video for his newest song SIDEWALKS. He's started a Kickstarter campaign to get the money needed to make the video, and I would appreciate anyone's help to make his dream come true.

Listen to this video and then go to the Kickstater page and donate what you can. Thanks.

06 June 2012

By the Pricking of my Thumbs

While behind the scenes issues made this 1983 adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes a little uneven -Bradbury's script got an uncredited rewrite among many other problems- this scene is creepy, well performed and is layered with lyrical dialogue and metaphorical prose about how misguided our notions on about growing old. And how some people, supernatural or just our own minds, can ruin us.

Rest in Peace Ray Bradbury. You'll live forever, just as foretold. 

As always, Jason Robarbs is great and Jonathan Pryce is perfectly cast as one of the Autumn People.

02 June 2012

Books: Plays Well with Others by Allan Gurganus (1999)

There was a Before in the artist circles that kept New York strumming in the late 1970s, where young men of all shades, sizes and age descended on the Big Apple. Most, if not all, where escaping small town middle class life, with all their obligations, all their traditions. All came there to not only let the world see what they created, but to find love. 

If only for one night that is.

I can guess that much of Allan Gurganus’ Plays Well with Others must be autobiographical, but I can’t seem to find too much evidence of that. Still, with an inventive narrative and a sense of emotional punch that made those days seem so much fun, we meet Hartley Mins, a young writer who arrives in Manhattan just before the onslaught of AIDS. Through his narrative we get to meet composer Robert Christian Gustafson, an impossibly good-looking man from Iowa, son of a preacher. Of course, Hartley falls for him, but he gets caught In Robert’s wake because those good looks get Robert everything he wants, anyone he wants, both men and women. 

Also along for the ride is Angelina "Alabama" Byrnes, a failed debutant struggling to make her paintings mean something. And like then, as today, these friends take shelter with each other, promote each other's work, and compete sexually. And become the family of understanding souls that somehow got lost from where they grew up. When tragedy strikes, this circle grows up fast, somehow finding, at the worst of times, the truest sort of family.

Not sure this was, at the time of publication, the AIDS crises great novel, but I’m struck with the idea that while there has been tons of nonfiction books published over the last twenty to 30 years after it began, I’m guessing (though I may be wrong here) not many novels about that era have been published. Well, at least by well-known authors like Gurganus (who is also the author of the huge 1989 best-seller The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All). Still, we lost so many that part of the problem may be that there is no one left to tell the tale. In the end, it’s a deeply engaging novel about flawed, well-meaning people; but can also be describes as a valentine to dear friendships, and a canticle to a brilliant and now-vanished world.